UFOlogy: 50 Years of futility, frustration, and failure
ŠTim Printy May 2005
In the summer of 1947, people reported seeing objects flying across the sky exhibiting unusual characteristics. Hundreds of reports of these "flying objects" made headlines and everyone was mystified as to their source. These would eventually be called "Unidentified Flying Objects" (UFOs) but in 1947, they were referred to as "Flying saucers" or "Flying disks". The US Air Force took a great interest in these flying disk reports over the next few years because they implied that someone, or something, was invading the nations airspace. Through investigation, the Air Force tried to identify what was producing these reports. Eventually, the Air Force started taking a skeptical attitude in their investigations. Too many of the reports were simply misidentified events that were mundane in nature. This skeptical attitude meant the Air Force would often suggest solutions to some reports that were hard to accept by those who felt there was another possible solution. As a result civilian organizations cropped up and began to attempt their own investigations. However, they took a less skeptical attitude and stated that nothing on this earth could explain some of the events being reported. They also implied that the government was not telling the truth about UFOs and their was a coverup on a grand scale. These UFO organizations collected all of the reports they could find and felt that there was only one valid solution to this phenomena. The "science" of UFOlogy had begun its quest for evidence, which would prove that alien spacecraft were visiting the earth. This became known as the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). While many UFOlogists will not openly admit that they back the ETH as the solution to unexplained UFO reports, they will often suggest that it is the most likely solution as demonstrated by this official policy statement of the Fund for UFO Research (FUFOR):
While physical proof of the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs is not in the hands of civilian investigators, there is a growing mass of evidence that points to the distinct possibility that some UFOs represent the presence, near the Earth, of a non-human intelligence. (Berlinner)
Assuming this is correct, how good is this "growing mass of evidence" and what has UFOlogy done over the past fifty years to use this evidence to prove the ETH?
Musical best cases?
The ETH has been championed by a great many UFO organizations and leaders over the years. Probably the most prominent scientist to take an early interest in this theory was Dr. James McDonald. McDonald championed the ETH and felt the best way to get science involved was to present the best cases that defied explanation. McDonald was extremely critical of science's lack of interest in the phenomena. However, many scientists were not as willing to believe that what was being reported was extraordinary. According to Carl Sagan,
McDonald's view on UFOs was based, he said, not on irrefutable evidence, but was a conclusion of last resort: All the alternative explanations seemed to him even less credible. In the middle 1960s I arranged for McDonald to present his best cases in a private meeting with leading physicists and astronomers who had not staked a claim on the UFO issue. Not only did he fail to convince them that we were being visited by extraterrestrials; he failed even to excite their interest. And this was a group with a very high wonder quotient. It was simply that where McDonald saw aliens, they saw much more prosaic explanations. (Sagan 103)
The best case presentation has always been the method most often used by UFOlogists to present evidence that "UFOs are real". When Dr. Edward Condon organized the University of Colorado's investigation, he originally thought about attempting to confront many of the UFOlogical writings and pointing out their errors. However, Dr. Roy Craig warned against it because it was like fighting the mythical hydra:
If one proved six of ten arguments wrong, the opposition would merely drop those arguments and substitute six new ones, leaving us where we started. The situation was similar to pursuing Dr. James McDonalds "twenty best UFO cases," which he told various groups of people were worthy of detailed scientific investigation. As soon as the investigator showed several of the twenty to have no merit, those were simply dropped from the list and replaced with different cases. Since Dr. Condon seemed to love a good fight, many of which he had experienced in his past activities, he must have found it difficult to yield to our arguments, and merely let erroneous testimony fall of its own weight. But he did. (Craig 212)
According to Dr. William Hartmann this listing of unsolved UFO cases was inadequate,
...the mere listing of unanswered puzzles is not equivalent to providing unanswerable arguments. Is it conceivable that all of the UFO reports can be due to mistakes and hoaxes? I think that it is conceivable, and not at all a rash suggestion. We know the "signal-to-noise ratio" in UFO studies is low, and their may be no signal at all. (Sagan and Page 14)
Despite this criticism, UFOlogy continues to compile a list of best cases to present as evidence that UFOs "exist" as some form of physical phenomenon. Richard Hall has a lengthy list he often uses for presentation. These are selections from his books, The UFO evidence Volumes I and II. After reviewing his summaries of each case one can see that there are several reports that contain very little in the way of details that can be analyzed or rely on one witness as the source of information. Exactly how good can a case be if the specifics are lacking or one is relying on the sole testimony of one individual?
How good is the evidence?
The pillar of UFOlogy's evidence that UFO reports represent something extraordinary is based principally upon eyewitness testimony, photographs/videos, and physical traces left behind. One might add additional items such as radar, electromagnetic effects, and psychological aspects but these connections to a UFO sighting are often ambiguous or the actual data is not available for analysis.
The book, Criminal investigations: Basic Perspectives, states the following about evidence and where it may lead:
Investigators must learn the difference between evidence and facts to avoid confusion in evaluating evidence in its role as proof. Evidence is not synonymous with fact. Evidence may be ambiguousthat is, subject different interpretations. It may be falseexaggerated, planted, or perjured. It may be modified by forgetfulness, inattention, or silence. On the other hand, a fact is the truth (insofar as the truth can be determined by the triers-of-fact in a criminal trial). A fact (in this sense of the term) is the effect of evidence, and it is dependent upon evidence. A fact is established from a very personal evaluation of the evidence presented in a particular case by the trier-of-fact. Evidence may tend to prove a fact, or may be sufficiently strong to compel a conclusion of fact, or may be just strong enough to create a reasonable doubt. (Weston and Wells 16-17)
Can one establish facts from the evidence UFOlogy presents?
The main source of UFO evidence are the reports made by eyewitnesses. What UFOlogy wants everyone to believe is that the testimony of the eyewitnesses is enough to establish the fact that structured craft of unknown origin that operate under intelligent control are producing these UFO reports. They have been somewhat successful in that the general public usually equates the word UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) with "flying saucers" or "little green men" from space. Unfortunately, this fact can not be established from the eyewitness testimony alone. Carl Sagan explains:
On so important a question, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witnesss say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they are seeing. People sometimes even see things that arent there. (Sagan 69)
Science places some weight to eyewitness testimony but only to initiate inquiries into an event. The problem comes with witness perception of what they think they saw. According to Dr. Philip Morrison,
...we humans do not immediately perceive the world as it is; rather, we are elaborate computers with an enormous preset routine and much programming, both genetic and cultural; and we have to interpret all the data we get. That interpretation, whatever it is, is subject to error (Sagan and Page 290).
Herein lies the problem with eyewitness testimony. The details of these reports are often highly subjective in nature. An example of this subjectivity is how they often contain estimates of size and speed. One has to wonder how witnesses arrive at these values with the object being unidentified. One can not possibly estimate any of these without having some frame of reference. Famed UFO investigator Allen Hendry encountered this problem while investigating over 1300 UFO reports given to the Center for UFO studies (CUFOS). He listed several examples of size estimates in his UFO Handbook:
I never asked a witness to guess "size" other than angular size. However, I did record any size offered. Here are some examples:
Case 280 - "30 feet wide, 15 feet high" -- moon
Case 693 - "300-500 feet in diameter" -- ad plane
Case 757 - "100-150 feet in size" -- moon
Case 778 - "25 feet in diameter" -- Venus seen as a point source in angular size for 2-3 hours (Hendry 103)
Additionally, Hendry got estimates of distances and altitudes for stars. In the 49 UFO reports that were identified as stars, where witnesses estimated the distance, values ranged between 100 feet to 125 miles! With these kind of errors, exactly how good can science regard the testimony being offered as evidence. Professor Morrison provides further commentary on eyewitness testimony as scientific evidence:
I would say that NO witness is credible who bears a sufficiently strange story. The only hope is for independent chains, several independent witnesses, and then credibility certainly rises. Moreover, independence is most important (I shall return to this point). I want to emphasizes that the singleness of a witness necessarily puts his case into some sort of doubt. All of us know how people have been mistaken with the best will in the world.(Sagan and Page 282-3)
Independent witnesses to the same event can be considered a way to verify the other witnesses perception of an event. Additionally, if the correct data is gathered, it is possible to triangulate the objects path and determine the stimulus for the report. This is how meteor observations get around the eyewitness testimony problem. If a single individual reports a fireball, it is not worth much. However, when many independent witnesses report a fireball, something can be done with the information. Plotting a fireballs path is done by obtaining VALID data (some eyewitnesses usually give inadequate information) and cross checking the observations. Therefore, multiple and independent eyewitness reports can be considered the best UFO cases for scientific evidence ESPECIALLY when GOOD scientific data is obtained from these reports. However, these cases can also be full of misidentifications. One good example of independent multiple eyewitnesses misperceiving an event is the Zond IV reentry. Allan Hendry noted this problem when reviewing his cases:
The presence of multiple witnesses did not serve to dampen misjudgments about IFO sources. As mentioned earlier, a full 74 per cent of the IFO sightings had the benefit of multiple witnesses, compared to 63 per cent of the 113 UFO reports. Note the smaller presence of multiple witnesses in the UFO events, contrary to what one might have expected. (Hendry 191)
Independent witness testimony is rare in most UFO cases and, from what I have seen, very few UFOlogists bother to publish the scientific data from those sightings that do involve independent witnesses. This means that they either did not gather the data or did not wish to publish it because it might refute some of the extraordinary estimates given by the witnesses. In either case, it demonstrates that UFOlogy continues to rely on what witnesses perceive they saw instead of trying to evaluate what was actually seen.
Understanding the problem with eyewitness testimony is important when evaluating how good the evidence is for establishing facts. About all one can conclude from the eyewitness testimony is that these individuals saw an event in the sky that they could not identify. Unfortunately, there are a multitude of stimuli that could generate these reports and it is known that people often make mistakes in how they report these events. The potential for inaccuracy is high enough to make it's acceptance as scientific evidence low. This is why the director of the Hayden Planetarium Dr.Neil deGrasse Tyson stated that "...even if in a court of law, eyewitness testimony is a high form of evidence, in the court of science, it is the lowest form of evidence you could possibly put forth" (UFOs). UFOlogy's principle evidence of eyewitness testimony MIGHT be considered acceptable to start some form of investigation if a specific scientist feels it worth the effort but not something upon which to base any conclusion.
UFOlogy's second source of evidence after eyewitness testimony mainly revolves around photographs/videos. The problem so far has been that most photographs or videos have been shown to be hoaxes, have indications of a hoax, or images of mundane objects seen from a great distance giving the impression of something unusual. Allan Hendry once wrote:
I noted earlier in examining the conclusions of the 1,307 UFO reports that hoaxes did not figure at all into the scheme of things--rather misperceptions of some existing stimulus were responsible. This situation is not the case, however, when it comes to cases involving photographs, where a significant population of deliberate fraud exists. The failure of photographs to serve as impersonal proof of the existence of UFOs up to now lay largely in the ease of fabricating fake photos of small models that couldn't be distinguished from the real thing. (Hendry 204)
Proving a photographs authenticity is difficult to do and proving a fake is equally so. One has only to examine the Ed Walters case to see how analysts differ in opinion on this matter. In every case that UFO photographs are presented showing a truly anomalous physical object, they are taken by only one photographer/videographer during the event in question. These images have to be questioned because there is no additional data to back them up (such as another photograph of the same object from an independent photographer in a completely different location). Like eyewitness testimony, the photographs have questionable value because of the potential for hoax.
UFOlogy's third source of evidence is what has been called "physical traces". Some UFOlogists often trumpet that there are thousands of cases where UFO's have left evidence of their passage. Is this so and how good is the evidence? Allan Hendry seemed to think that it was just as subjective as eyewitness testimony:
Despite the great abundance of physical-trace cases, the connection between the "UFO" and "trace" has always been frustrating ambiguous. How many sightings of objects affecting the ground could be attributable to unusual natural phenomena, like ball lightning? What are the chances that physical traces are mundane artifacts that existed prior to the UFO sighting and whose significance was imparted by the witness? Are witnesses willing to implicate "false traces" unrelated to their visual sighting and whose significance was imparted by the witness? Are witnesses willing to implicate "false traces" in the desperate attempt to convince themselves and others of the reality of their UFO "vision"? The CE II IFOs demonstrate the widespread desire to falsely connect UFO sightings and unrelated "traces". So, whenever one is confronted by new physical-trace CEIIs, the question must be asked: "Is this one different from all of the others by being able to stand on its own two feet?" Otherwise, it will be no more probative than its predecessors. (Hendry 132)
Carl Sagan felt that there was no "trace evidence" that had been subjected to serious scientific scrutiny:
Some enthusiasts argue that there are "thousands" of cases of "disturbed" soil where UFOs supposedly landed, and why isnt that good enough? It isnt good enough because there are ways of disturbing the soil other than by aliens and UFOshumans with shovels is a possibility that springs into mind. One UFOlogists rebukes me for ignoring 4400 physical trace cases from 65 countries." But not one of these cases, so far as I know, has been analyzed, with results published in a peer-reviewed journal in physics or chemistry, metallurgy or soil science, showing that the "traces" could not have been generated by people (Sagan 181)
The subjective nature of directly linking any physical trace evidence to a UFO event makes one wonder about the numbers that are cited. Looking at some of the top cases listed by Ted Phillips, I notice that many of these cases were never really examined. There are claims of traces but no real physical evidence was gathered. Additionally, some cases have dates missing (such as Whiteman AFB 5/??/66) but are still considered "top cases"! How good can a case be if it has no specific information associated with it? As a result, the claims of "thousands" of physical trace cases appears highly inflated and it is likely that the number of cases in which UFOlogy has actually collected "trace evidence" is only a fraction of this value. How good this "trace evidence" is depends on the rigor of the investigative efforts. The failure to have any of these cases presented for review in scientific journals makes one wonder if they are hoaxes or have a reasonable explanation. Without adequate information and peer review, such evidence must be considered open to interpretation and, possibly, suspect.
The evidence presented by UFOlogy so far does not really indicate much. It is very difficult to state that these reports are indicative of alien visitation (the ETH). According to the book, Criminal investigations: Basic Perspectives,
Proof is the effect of evidence. It is the establishment of a fact by the production of evidence. Proof requires quality in evidence but may also require quantitythat is, the amount of evidence plays a major role in determining whether a fact will be established to the satisfaction of the triers-of-fact. The final measure of a proof is the impact of the evidence upon the triers-of-fact. (Weston and Wells 24)
The quality of the evidence that UFOlogy presents can not establish any facts other than that people report seeing objects in the sky that they can not identify, that some photographs exist that might be of actual airborne objects, and that there are samples of soil/vegetation that exhibit unusual (but not unearthly) characteristics. Because of the potential for errors by the eyewitnesses and the nature of the photographic and trace evidence, one can state that the evidence presented can not be used to validate the ETH or even to initiate massive scientific investigation.
Signal or noise?
How do UFOlogists approach the problem of trying to determine what these UFO reports really are? There are many groups with different methods but the basic format is that each UFO organization has qualified investigators who receive the UFO reports and go to the area and interview/investigate. Unfortunately, there is no standard by which these investigators are trained. Some are highly skilled in many areas, while others appear to undergo a basic course of instruction and take a test. Others declare themselves qualified investigators with no apparent training at all. After discussing some cases with a few UFOlogists over the years and reading reports on the web and in UFO journals, I have come to the general conclusion that a significant portion of those declaring themselves qualified investigators have very little knowledge of astronomy, the sky, or even attempt to be skeptical of the most absurd reports. Allan Hendry commented on this in his UFO Handbook:
That there are good private UFO researchers who are prepared to ferret out IFO explanations and ACCEPT them is certain...Yet for a field that is composed of individuals who profess to be intrigued by aerial anomalies, there is a widespread ignorance about even the most basic characteristics of sources like meteors, ad planes, and balloons. This ignorance is likely to be a deliberate SUPPRESSION by each UFO researcher, for reasons that are reflected in the motives they demonstrate for their involvement with UFOs...This emotional predisposition inevitably proves to be a poor framework for the objective handling of raw sighting reports. (Hendry 272)
If this is the state of UFO investigations, exactly how good are these cases being used as evidence?
In 1997, a panel of scientists noted some serious problems with the investigative process associated with the UFO cases that were presented:
It appears that most current UFO investigations are carried out at a level of rigor that is not consistent with prevailing standards of scientific research...It may therefore be valuable to carefully evaluate UFO reports to extract information about unusual phenomena currently unknown to science. However, to be credible to the scientific community, such evaluations must take place with a spirit of objectivity and a willingness to evaluate rival hypotheses. (Sturrock 121)
In this instance, these scientists were presented with UFOlogy's "best cases". If the "best cases" are not investigated at a high standard, what does it say for the lesser cases? I have seen sensational reports published as fact with little or no question being raised as to how they were investigated or with no desire to examine the actual facts that point towards the solution of the case. Rival hypothesis are not always examined thoroughly , disregarded flippantly, and sometimes not at all (Amateur astronomer recorded a bright fireball at the same time). When somebody inside of UFOlogy does question the investigative process, they are often called names like "debunker" or "pelicanist", which in UFOlogy appears to mean "close minded" and unwilling to see the ETH point of view. Therefore, with the stigma of being labeled a "debunker" nobody is that interested in questioning a case especially if that case is being presented by some of the most "respected" individuals in UFOlogy.
Once an investigation is completed, if one is conducted at all, the sighting is placed in a database. A database is meant to help identify patterns of UFO behavior but one has to wonder exactly what happens to the sightings that are not investigated or have potential IFO explanations. Are they removed from the database? Based on the numbers of cases being catalogued, it seems that this is not happening. Some databases have cases numbered in the thousands, which are probably padded with many potential IFOs. Richard Hall seems to think these numbers makes a difference but then states the quality of the research is lacking:
Ufology has moved forward and acquired a much larger database, but it also has regressed in the quality of research. Too much uncontrolled wild speculation and unscientific behavior. (Hall)
If this "larger database" is populated with poorly researched reports, exactly how good is it?
Despite over fifty years of researching these UFO sightings, exactly what can UFOlogy state about UFOs? All that has changed are the numbers and types of "unsolved" UFO cases.Perhaps Ian Rogers has a more realistic appraisal of UFOlogys first fifty years:
The truth is UFO news has been running on life support for years and years. I was out of the field for ten years, and when I came back no one - not a single person or organization - was any further to proving a single thing. There haven't been any huge cases, not really, no smoking guns, no disclosures. Oh sure, there have been some funky photos, some curious videos, and your list of usual suspects - the slew of shadowy govt. operatives speaking on condition of anonymity. But this is no different than what we've seen since people started seriously investigating UFOs. Nothing has changed Ultimately nothing needs to be said. The proof most people need hasn't been found yet. Cite your cases, posts your photos. Most people don't believe and they never will until something big comes along to convince them otherwise. And you can begrudge them for that if you want, call them skeptics and debunkers and ignorant. It doesn't change the fact that the believers just don't have the goods. (Rogers)
Based on the performance of the past 50 years, one can predict where UFOlogy will be in another 50 years. The number of "unexplained" cases will continue to grow as well as the number of cases existing in the databases. However, it is very unlikely that UFOlogy will know more about UFOs in 2055 than they did in 2005 and 1955.
Why do scientists dislike investigating UFO reports?
Ever since the advent of the modern UFO era, science has stepped in and attempted to evaluate the phenomena on several occasions. As early as 1953, scientists were asked by the CIA to take a look at the phenomena and to determine what they thought of them. They were not overly impressed. The "Robertson Panel" would eventually conclude:
...that reasonable explanations could be suggested for most sightings and 'by deduction and scientific method it could be induced (given additional data) that other cases may be explained in a similar manner...there is no evidence that the phenomena indicates a need for the revision of current scientific concepts (Condon et al. 909).
After a rash of UFO incidents in 1966, Congress asked that something be done. A panel comprised of scientists would eventually recommend a scientific study take on the task of investigating UFO reports. This was the start of the Colorado project led by Dr. Edward Condon, which concluded that UFOs were not worthy of scientific study and, more importantly, that nothing could be learned from the study of UFO reports. This ended any government funding of scientifically studying UFO reports. For this, Dr. Condon will be forever vilified by UFOlogists.
In 1997, with much fanfare from pro-ETH supporters, another scientific panel attempted to look into the UFO phenomena. In this case a panel of independent scientists were exposed to a one-sided presentation of the best cases available by pro-ETH UFO scientists. Despite this unbalanced presentation of "best evidence", the scientists were not that convinced. They stated:
It was clear that at least a few reported incidents might have involved rare but significant phenomena such as electrical activity high above thunderstorms (e.g., sprites) or rare cases of radar ducting. On the other hand, the review panel was not convinced that any of the evidence involved currently unknown physical processes or pointed to the involvement of an extraterrestrial intelligence The panel also reviewed some of the conclusions advanced in 1968 by Dr. Edward U. Condon, director of the Colorado Project. He asserted that "nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge," and that "further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby." While agreeing with the first conclusion and its extension to the present, the panel considers that there always exists the possibility that investigation of an unexplained phenomenon may lead to an advance in scientific knowledge. (Sturrock 122)
Despite loud proclamations by Sturrock that one of Condons conclusions was now reversed, the truth was Condon did not state that further investigation should be discouraged:
Scientists are no respecters of authority. Our conclusion that study of UFO reports is not likely to advance science will not be uncritically accepted by them. Nor should it be, nor do we wish it to be. For scientists, it is our hope that the detailed analytical presentation of what we were able to do, and of what we were unable to do, will assist them in deciding whether or not they agree with our conclusions. Our hope is that the details of this report will help other scientists in seeing what the problems are and the difficulties of coping with them.
If they agree with our conclusions, they will turn their valuable attention and talents elsewhere. If they disagree it will be because our report has helped them reach a clear picture of wherein existing studies are faulty or incomplete and thereby will have stimulated ideas for more accurate studies. If they do get such ideas and can formulate them clearly, we have no doubt that support will be forthcoming to carry on with such clearly-defined, specific studies. We think that such ideas for work should be supported.
Some readers may think that we have now wandered into a contradiction. Earlier we said that we do not think study of UFO reports is likely to be a fruitful direction of scientific advance; now we have just said that persons with good ideas for specific studies in this field should be supported. This is no contradiction. Although we conclude after nearly two years of intensive study, that we do not see any fruitful lines of advance from the study of UFO reports, we believe that any scientist with adequate training and credentials who does come up with a clearly defined, specific proposal for study should be supported...
Therefore we think that all of the agencies of the federal government, and the private foundations as well, ought to be willing to consider UFO research proposals along with the others submitted to them on an open-minded, unprejudiced basis. While we do not think at present that anything worthwhile is likely to come of such research each individual case ought to be carefully considered on its own merits.
This formulation carries with it the corollary that we do not think that at this time the federal government ought to set up a major new agency, as some have suggested, for the scientific study of UFOs. This conclusion may not be true for all time. If, by the progress of research based on new ideas in this field, it then appears worthwhile to create such an agency, the decision to do so may be taken at that time. (Condon et al 2-3)
In truth, the panel pretty much mirrored Condons statements. The main reason UFOlogy hates the Condon study is that it closed down government funding of UFO investigations. With the Sturrock panel, UFOlogy tried to gain credibility for other money sources such as research grants. However, since 1997 it appears that groups that do fund scientific research have not flooded UFO organizations (CUFOS had a financial crisis recently) or scientists with cash for research and there has been no flood of new scientists wanting to investigate the matter. This exposes the Sturrock panel for the publicity stunt that it really was.
Seth Shostak head of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is skeptical of UFO claims and is often vilified by UFOlogists for this opinion.
UFOlogists want scientists to investigate this phenomena above all others. However, most scientists find it a fruitless endeavor. For instance, should an astronomer spend a lifetime chasing vague UFO sightings or spend it pursuing events that can be studied scientifically and improve ones understanding of the universe? Astronomer Seth Shostak explains:
If aliens have been visiting the Earth for 50 years, you would think that it would not be so hard to convince a lot of people that that was true. It's convinced 50 percent of the American public, but it's convinced very few academics. As an astronomer friend said to me, if I thought there was a one percent chance any of that was true, I'd spend 100 percent of my time on it. In other words, if the evidence were the least bit compelling, you'd have lots of academics working on it because it's very interesting. To me that says that the evidence is weak from the scientist's perspective. (Huyghe)
To counter this argument, UFOlogists want everyone to think that scientists do not investigate UFOs for fear of public ridicule. This is not really giving scientists much credit. A scientist, who really is interested in investigating the subject, would do so without any such concern. Would UFOlogy really want such a timid scientist investigating their cause? The fact remains that the study of UFOs does not offer much in the way of advancement of understanding the universe we live in and financing for such endeavors is lacking. These are the major reasons why most scientists do not study UFOs full time.
UFOlogy does itself no favors in trying to court scientists/experts, who might have an interest in pursuing the subject. Those that come into the field with a skeptical attitude are usually regarded as a "debunker". For instance, when William Hyzer offered his services during the Gulf Breeze investigation, he was criticized by ETH proponents, was given only copies of the photographs for analysis, and, in some cases, harassed by some of the investigators close to the case. Hyzer's conclusion was that the case was a hoax and, as a result, certain UFOlogists went out of the way to alienate him. Hyzer would eventually comment,:"Several UFO investigators have asked me if I intend to continue any further with this investigation. The answer is no; my future scientific pursuits carry me to much higher ground" (Hyzer Hyzer 16). Additionally, respected scientists like Edward Condon and Howard Robertson have long been vilified by the UFO community for their opinions/conclusions regarding UFOs. More recent events show that this type of commentary continues.
When ABC aired a program "UFOs: Seeing is Believing" in February 2005, several scientists were allowed to comment on the phenomena. The scientists were, for the most part, skeptical of the eyewitness testimony and reports. This did not sit well with many UFOlogists. Stanton Friedman resorted to name calling in his commentary, in which he referred to the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) scientists as the "Silly Effort To Investigate cultists" (Friedman). This is an interesting comment from somebody who declares that he is a nuclear physicist (he has a masters and not a doctorate and, to the best of my knowledge, is not a practicing nuclear physicist) and interested in the scientific discussion/investigation of UFOs. With this kind of professionalism from one of the more respected UFOlogists in the field, one does not have to wonder why scientists aren't interested in the subject.
Even more interesting is the commentary by one of UFOlogy's lead historians/authors. Having written a three volume encyclopedia on the subject, Jerome Clark is often considered the central authority on the subject and he appeared on the ABC program as a UFO expert. When it came to the skeptical opinion of the SETI scientists, Clark was a bit more professional than Friedman, but not by much:
Frank Drake appeared to be going out of his way to validate his critics' longstanding contention that his is essentially a mystical, religious quest. He talked like a zealot about how a message from space would change the world, just like some primitive awaiting word from the sky gods. Jill Tarter looked ridiculous when she admitted (boasted, even) that - as an astronomer yet - she failed to recognize what any Joe Doakes has no trouble identifying instantly: the moon partially hidden by clouds. Even more amusingly, this came in the context of smug assertions by her and her colleagues that anecdotal testimony is worthless - except, I guess, if it's anecdotal testimony by a clueless UFO disbeliever. (Clark)
I guess Clark, despite his immense wealth of knowledge on the UFO subject, did not read Hendry's book completely. He had 22 reports of the moon being misidentified as a UFO (including one case where police officers pursued the setting moon!) meaning that not "any Joe Doakes" could identify the moon instantly. Of course, Tartar was able to identify the moon once it began to emerge from the clouds without the need of calling the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) making her a bit more critical than those who file the numerous UFO reports that turn out to be mundane events. Jerome Clark has previously stated that only scientists that have an in depth knowledge about the UFO subject should have a valid opinion on the subject. Interestingly, Clark was more than willing to accept the positive comments made by physicist Michio Kaku, who, to the best of my knowledge, has never investigated any UFO cases either. Apparently, all of the years of scientific training/experience makes skeptical scientists incapable of talking about how science should weigh the evidence. With this close-minded approach on listening to opposing opinions and public denigration of respected scientists for voicing these opinions, one can understand why scientists might shy away from the subject!
This frustrating nature of studying UFOs was best described by the great science fiction/science author, Arthur C. Clarke:
The theory that the "genuine" UFOs are visitors from space, though it must be taken quite seriously, involves difficulties that make it very hard to accept. If this explanations is correct, one would have though that it would have been established beyond any doubt, years ago. The skies are now scanned night and day by radar and optical networks that can detect a beachball as far away as the Moon. (It is literally true that some radars can track orbiting nuts and bolts.) Tens of thousands of amateur astronomers search the heavens for comets and novae, yet it is rare indeed for these skilled observers to report an unknown. They see plenty of strange things, but their scientific background quickly leads to an identification; they dont go rushing off to the local paper at the first glimpse of a fuzzy light in the sky After twenty years of the wretched things, I am bored to death with UFOs. Any letters on the subject will not be forwarded by my publishers. If forwarded, they will not be read. And if read, they will not be answered. (Clarke 285-6).
Clarke's writings pretty much reflect how scientists publicly approach the subject. How can UFOlogy change this attitude?
Physician, heal thyself
Unless we develop drastically new ideas and methodologies for the study of the baffling UFO cases and the human context in which they occur, we will watch the next thirty years of UFO report gathering simply mirror the futility and frustration of the last thirty years. (Hendry 285)
Never have truer words been spoken in the late 1970s by The Center For UFO Studies (CUFOS) lead investigator, Allan Hendry. Alas, UFOlogy has ignored this warning because the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. Looking at UFOlogys progress over the past fifty-plus years, one would think somebody would find ways to improve their methodology. Any organization that is failing to accomplish its goals realizes that it must look inward to improve its results. Could UFOlogy accomplish this if it really was interested in finding an answer to the UFO problem? If so, what could be done?
The first method would be to establish standards for all UFO investigations. Unfortunately, UFOlogy's current structure of multiple UFO groups functioning in their own independent manner makes it impossible for any enforceable standards to be established. This goes back to the early days of UFOlogy when multiple organizations popped up under various leaderships. As these organizations fell away, new groups moved in to take on the existing membership. Robert Sheaffer noted this when describing UFOlogy:
Those within the UFO movement ceaselessly proclaim themselves to be the Galileos of a brave new science. Yet their never-ending internal squabbles are suggestive not of the persecution of Galielo by the Church, but of the Hatfields and McCoys. (Sheaffer 41)
Revelations by Virgilio Sanchez-Ocejo shows this to be true:
In 1982, during a MUFON Symposium in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Dr. Hynek and myself proposed, in a separate meeting room with some heads of UFO organizations and well known ufologists, the creation of a 'World UFO Association'. Its goal was to unite all ufologists and organizations with some basic rules and regulations. Coral Lorenzen of APRO and some ufologists present opposed the idea, killing the project.(Sanchez-Ocejo)
Hynek had the correct idea but the politics that is UFOlogy prevented it from taking the path towards real scientific investigation. Without established standards and a central organization to set them, it seems UFOlogy will remain where it has been for the past fifty years. However, if UFOlogy did take this step, the potential for advancement could occur.
Establishing a central authority on all UFOlogical activities would be the beginning of UFOlogy's efforts towards establishing themselves as a truly scientific endeavor. The CUFOS organization probably should serve as that authority because of their scientific organization/heritage. However, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) has the best nationwide organization implying a need to merge the two organizations together if one were to establish a central authority. UFOlogy may have taken the first baby steps in forming such a group when they formed the UFO Research Coalition sometime in the late 1990s. However, progress is slow in accomplishing anything because it has done nothing toward establishing a true central authority (their UFO research page is still "under construction" in 2005!). The purpose of a really valid central organization would be to clear all reports/investigations as well as establish training programs for UFOlogists. It would be important that this authority be made up of individuals with scientific training and experience. Recall that there is no sort of formal training for UFOlogists and this produces a problem. Anyone can declare themselves a UFOlogist and conduct themselves in any manner they see fit. The central authority would establish what individuals can be certified UFO investigators and it could control how most of UFOlogy conducts its business investigating the UFO phenomena.
The Sturrock panel noted that most, if not all, investigations were not up to scientific standards. However, despite the fanfare associated with the panel, it appears that nothing has been done to correct this. Investigations need to be done correctly and by thoroughly trained investigators. MUFON has a program that is fairly well documented but from what I have read it is really not adequate. MUFON apparently trains their investigators in just six sessions and then gives an open book 100 question test taken from their manual. The manual itself is over a hundred pages in length and covers an incredible range of topics. For an individual to become an expert in all areas described is something that takes time. Cramming all the necessary training a UFO investigator needs into a few training sessions really is insufficient especially if the individual has very little scientific/investigative background. The entire course of training should take about 50-100 hours of instruction as a minimum. Once this course is completed, each investigator should have to undergo some form of apprenticeship period with a certified investigator. Final certification should require a thorough examination both orally (by a board of certified investigators) and written (closed book with the bulk being essay type questions) after completion of the apprenticeship period. However, it should not stop there. A continuing training course need to be conducted for certified investigators to ensure the level of knowledge is maintained, techniques improved, and there is a review of lessons learned. Periodic re-examinations of the investigators should also be conducted every several years. Failure of the periodic re-exam might indicate a need for retraining (or possible removal of investigators qualification). One might suggest this is a rather difficult program to complete and maintain. It should be difficult in order to ensure those certified are truly qualified to do the job. If the program is done correctly, a good training program would set high standards of investigation that could provide really useful scientific data instead of just a collection of UFO stories, which can not be quantified or evaluated scientifically.
Once a report is received, it is up to the central authority to determine how to allocate their resources in the area. If the case contains insufficient information for analysis, the case should be rejected or attempts made to elicit more information. As described by professor Morrison, cases involving multiple and independent witnesses should be prime cases for rapid and thorough investigation by several investigators. Once an initial investigation is complete and a report/analysis submitted to the central authority, a panel of experienced UFOlogists need to do a quality check of the report and make suggestions for further investigation. All of this should occur as rapidly as possible. Anything beyond a month for most cases would be a wasted effort as the trail would rapidly become cold. Most important is that publicity should be kept to a minimum. This prevents the media from contaminating the case. After the investigation was performed, a press release would be produced by a central authority describing the case and all details of the report. A website would allow ALL information (specific scientific data obtained, drawings, statements, and photographs) to be disclosed and not just a summary. This allows for all to examine the uncontaminated evidence. This prevents a selective effect, where UFOlogists select only the extraordinary portions of the testimony and reject comments that might suggest the source of the report. It also helps enforce standards of investigation by allowing a quality check from outside sources.
Another effort to help resolve the question is to establish observer groups. Like amateur astronomers with meteor observations, UFO groups should establish sky watches setup to observe for UFOs. However, these observers would not just watch and cheer when they see something unusual. Instead they would gather meaningful data such as azimuth, altitude, and angular diameter. After adequate training, these observers could attempt to monitor the sky and chronicle each event they observe with the appropriate information. A sample of the type of format might look like this:
|Time||Begin Az||Begin Elev||End Az||End Elev||Begin angular size||End Angular size||Duration||Remarks|
The use of still and video cameras in conjunction with these observations would also aid in verifying the data from the observations. If two or more observers are separated by a mile or so, one could gather invaluable data regarding each event. To the best of my knowledge, UFOlogy has not attempted this on any grand scale (occasional watches are run by local groups but little data is gathered/published from what I can see). It is interesting that this was recommended in NICAP's The UFO Evidence by Dr. James C. Bartlett. While some may find it a fruitless endeavor, all one has to do is read Filer's files or the NUFORC database of reports. There are dozens of UFOs reported around the country every week. According to some UFOlogists, this only lists a fraction of the UFOs that are actually seen because only a small fraction of the population sends in a report! If this is true, then such an effort should produce results almost immediately! Of course, if most of these reports being published are actually identifiable, then this observing program would be able to clear this up quickly. In either case, something meaningful would be accomplished.
One can take this technique one step further and setup a multiple video camera surveillance system for the sky. One can look at large shopping centers and their use of video cameras to help record events on the ground and move it up to the sky. Present technology can produce cameras with adequate resolution and low light capability to help locate anything that is above magnitude +3 in the sky (most reports indicate UFOs are much brighter than this). Three such systems setup in a triangular pattern, with each leg being a few miles long, could establish the existence of unusual events in the sky for that area. UFOlogists might complain that such a system would cost too much and might not capture any UFOs. The cost is not that great Astronomers often spend 10,000 dollars or more of their own cash for their own equipment. Why wouldn't a UFOlogist interested in gathering scientific data on his field of interest be willing to spend the same? A three base setup would only cost about 10,000 dollars. A half-dozen UFOlogists could surely afford such a system that might snag a UFO or make it easier to weed out IFOs in their area. Imagine the amount of coverage that could be created if each state UFO organization established several of these networks. Such a system could solve many UFO reports right away and concentrate efforts towards the truly puzzling events. Eventually, maybe a really puzzling event would be captured. This would be hard data that could not be questioned. It is strange that UFOlogy's funds have not been used for something similar to this. The FUFOR website states they have raised over $700,000 for studying UFOs. All one has to do is look at how this funding has been spent to see that a significant portion has been used chasing old reports. What exactly did this accomplish and what might have happened if some of the funds were used to start a series of networks like I described?
There are other avenues one can approach besides visual observation. In his March 5, 2005 Blog, Christopher Jay/Rich Reynolds described how SETI and others have examined the radio spectrum and not reported any information about strange alien signals.
Also, why hasnt SETI investigated the ionosphere where radio signals are virtually trapped, some moving out into space, most reflected back to Earth? How difficult would it be to discern signals that dont conform to known patterns of radio transmissions?How difficult would it be for a UFO group to engage the same technical methodology?...SETI has co-opted the radio spectrum, imaginatively only, for its extraterrestrial searches, and the UFO community has abdicated it own creativity to SETIs needle-in-a-haystack approach to discovering advanced alien life forms. (Jay/Reynolds)
SETI is not the only organization scanning the skies for radio signals. Amateur astronomers have started their own SETI programs like project Bambi and project Argus using their own equipment. Again, the amount invested is on the order of a few thousand dollars. If we are to believe the classic RB-47 case, UFOs emit radio waves around 3 GHz. Why haven't UFOlogists monitored this portion of the radio spectrum to help locate this type of UFO? It is easier for UFOlogists to complain about science not looking for UFOs in their studies than it is to invest some funds and time to attempt the same type of research and demonstrate that there is something there.
Of course, UFOlogy does think about some new approaches. Peter Davenport suggested the use of passive radar for detecting UFOs. While it is an interesting approach, it something truly new and the bugs may not be worked out for some time. Additionally, interpretation of the signals may also produce ambiguous results. Can birds and insects produce results just like active radar? It will be interesting what might result from such an endeavor but it seems years away from even being a reality. Real time evaluation seems difficult, if not impossible, with any amateur setup. UFOlogy still needs to focus on what can be done now as well as what might be possible in the future.
UFOlogy continuously whines that science has not spent any time investigating truly puzzling UFO reports. The fact remains that UFOlogy has been investigating these puzzling cases for over fifty years and, based on the Sturrock panel comments, still has not convinced scientists that even their best cases are adequate evidence to stimulate scientific interest or funding. When discussing the results of the Sturrock panel, Ed Stewart made the following astute observation:
Let me repeat the lesson learned from the Sturrock scientific review panel: Pack up your old data and forget it. Ufology needs new data, new cases, new rigorous and scientific methodologies if it hopes ever to get out of its pit. (Stewart)
If UFOlogy wants to continue in the same old way, then it will get the same results. However, if it can present scientifically acquired data that can be presented, then, maybe, more scientists will be interested in the phenomena and something might be accomplished. However, this requires a revamping of UFOlogy's organization and efforts. It would also require that UFOlogists and their organizations take a more proactive approach on the subject and stop wasting their precious funds on ridiculous endeavors chasing old cases. It is up to UFOlogy to correct itself. Does it have the courage, wisdom, and leadership to do so?
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